BURDENS AND BAGGAGE
AT THE OUTSET of acclaimed author and psychologist Sudhir Kakar’s latest novel, erstwhile newspaper editor Kay Robinson receives an injunction from an old friend demanding that his letters be returned. The friend is Rudyard Kipling, and he wants his letters back so he can be sure they are destroyed.
Based on Kipling’s well-documented efforts to destroy his correspondence, in another sort of book, this incident might be the launching point for a salacious fictional exploration of the imperial bard’s secret life. But Kakar has a different game in mind: for him, the “fictional biography” or historical “faction” is not so much a springboard for literary conceit as an opportunity to clothe biographical research and a close reading of Kipling’s poems, stories, novels and, yes, letters with the intimacy that a novel affords. For such a book, “facts are a framework for the play of imagination inside the frame,” Kakar says via email. “A biography is factual; a biographical novel aims to be truthful.”
Kakar was drawn to Kipling—whose position in the canon has fallen since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907—because of his upbringing among the class sometimes disparaged as “brown sahibs”. But he approached the author now almost synonymous with the racist colonial phrase “the white man’s burden”—the title of one of his more famous poems—with more than a little distaste. “I grew up in a milieu of Westernised Indians in the higher echelons of the civil services and the professions who were convinced of the benefits of British rule and were dismissive of the ‘dhotiwalas’ who were soon to become India’s new rulers,” says Kakar, who was born in 1938. He revolted against this “colonisation of the mind” by refusing to go to Britain for higher studies, opting to attend Gujarat University and then Mannheim Business School in Frankfurt, Germany, instead. Now that he has left Delhi behind for Goa, his “much older and mellower” self found in Kipling a way he could not only revisit colonial Lahore, his family home, “but also reconnect with a preceding generation that held Kipling in high esteem and shared many of his prejudices.”
Rather than daring to render Kipling’s thoughts directly, Kakar frames his story in the eyes of the author’s newspaper colleague and friend, who can only speculate about what might be happening in his mind. Approached with the proper expectations, the result is thought provoking. Kakar makes an admirable effort to understand and contextualise the great writer’s troubling racism— circling and circling his attraction-repulsion to Hindu India’s mystery and filth (Kipling’s words) to culminate in a brilliantly imagined continuation of an actual Kipling letter describing his experience in an opulent brothel to add his feelings toward the “unclean” and “pestilential” ones he actually preferred. But the book’s title, which is what the narrator Robinson calls the letters he refuses to return to his friend, sets up false expectations of John le Carré-like machinations.
The test of a historical novel is not whether it is accurate or entertaining. Those are the basic requirements. To be “of note”, a historical novel has to bring something to the subject that cannot be found in the contemporary works of the period. Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong offers nothing that cannot be found in more authoritative form in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, for instance. The Kipling File justifies itself through (the postcolonial) Kakar’s simultaneously sceptical and sympathetic effort to understand the love-hate relationship that defined the colonial experience—which adds a new perspective to indispensable contemporary works like George Orwell’s Burmese Days, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and Kipling’s own, now underrated, Kim.
So, too, Kakar’s background as a noted psychoanalyst informs the text in a way that’s either absent from or more prosaic in a conventional biography. Psychology is a valuable tool, he explains. But it can also be reductive as the result of its diagnostic purpose. The beauty, and perhaps the reason for the existence, of novels is that they can approach these same questions—here Kipling’s relationships with his kind Indian ayahs versus his abuse at the hands of the woman he boarded with while he attended school in Britain—without coming down completely on one side or the other. In that respect, The Kipling File’s admirable ambiguity is the perfect complement to Kakar’s eloquent prose.
novel, latest psychoanalystIn his KAKAR SUDHIR explain to endeavours Kipling’s Rudyard attraction-repulsion relationship with India
THE KIPLING FILE by Sudhir Kakar PENGUIN `499; 229 pages